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Editorial: Unintended consequences of impeachment

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It is true that Donald Trump is unlike any modern president we have seen. Coming from the rough-and-tumble world of business, he can be divisive, crude and a practitioner of perplexing strategies.

It is equally true that Democrats stunned by Mr. Trump’s surprising election victory have spent the past three years looking for any way possible to oust him from office. So far, those efforts have fallen short. But the president and minions such as Rudy Giuliani provided them with ample fodder for that effort with the inappropriate handling of military aid to Ukraine and a request to investigate alleged corruption there, particularly involving former Vice President Joe Biden’s son.

But since Senate Republicans have made it clear from the start that they would be unwilling to convict Mr. Trump if he’s impeached by the House, it raises the question: What do we really hope to accomplish?

As The Washington Post’s Kathleen Parker observed recently, impeaching but not removing Mr. Trump will make him stronger politically — just as it did with Bill Clinton in 1998-99. Whether it’s Mr. Clinton or Mr. Trump, this is not the result you would want if you truly believe these men acted in a way no president should.

Allowing voters to decide this matter at the ballot box in 2020 would have been the wiser course. It certainly would have been easier and less painful for American citizens.

The impeachment episode, coming on top of such disruptive events as the Mueller probe of alleged collusion by Mr. Trump with Russia and the vitriol spilled in the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, should lead to reflection on what has become of American politics. With both sides smearing the other as traitors, and eagerly pushing conspiracy theories, they are dangerously eroding confidence in the integrity of government.

When George Washington retired from public life, battered by political rivals and worried about the nation’s young Constitution, he composed his famous Farewell Address that foretold the corrosive effect of party politics and other divisive forces:

“However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government. ...”

Both Democrats and Republicans are to blame for the escalation of this dangerous partisanship that President Washington warned against over 200 years ago, and which has been building for decades. Unless something drastically changes, we could very well see Republicans taking similar actions whenever a Democrat occupies the White House. Impeachment could become trivialized as the new normal, a partisan weapon that further erodes faith in our government and democracy.

American politics has become a game of party-first, and within the parties every man for himself. The loss of respect for higher principles in this winner-takes-all environment is amplified by the 24-hour news cycle, the media competition for eyeballs and clicks and a long series of congressional “reforms” that have weakened leadership and ultimately political accountability. If this trend is allowed to go on the country will become ungovernable.

It’s hard to see how to reverse course, but the challenge is real. America’s voters must demand better.

We still have elections, however, and voters will decide the fates of Mr. Trump and other elected officials involved in the impeachment drama.

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